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An online sting operation to catch child predators snared hundreds of men. What were they really guilty of? Jace Hambrick with his mother, Kathleen, earlier this year. Like many men prosecuted in Washington State sex stings, he had no criminal history before his arrest. Jess T. Dugan for The New York Times. By Michael Winerip. J ace Hambrick worked as an apprentice laborer during the week, renovating homes around Vancouver, Wash. Much of the rest of his life was online. He was hard-core, amassing a collection of more than games. As a video warrior, he was known online by his nom de guerre and was constantly messaging fellow gamers, particularly his best friend, Simon.

Though the two had never met in person, over the last few years they paired up as teammates playing Rainbow Six Siege and Rocket League and grew close. At 20, Hambrick was still living at home with his mother to save money for college, where he hoped to study game de. He was a voracious reader who could knock off a 1, fantasy novel in two days. People liked him; he made them laugh. When he and his mother lived in places that had board-game clubs, he was a regular.

And his kindness could be surprising. He would spend a morning handing out sandwiches to the hungry. The problem, he knew, was that he was a nerd. Sometimes he was too open with people. As a boy, he took medication for A. Online, it was different. Starting when he was 18, a few times a month, he clicked through the Casual Encounters section of Craigslist, looking for sex. There were so many listings, but when he tried messaging, it was rare to get a response. If people did respond, they often went dark after a few s.

Some seemed to enjoy role playing. He once replied to a post describing an attractive year-old, but when he arrived at the address she gave him, an old man answered the door. He got out of there fast. Every once in a while, it worked out: In the past few years, he had sex with five or six women he met this way. Fifteen minutes later, Gamer Gurl replied that she was Hambrick was confused. You mean 23? She asked for his cellphone and they switched to texting, exchanging photos. They exchanged a few texts about sex. But he was already hoping for more than just sex.

I have no problem hanging out with you. Was this an elaborate game? Again she claimed to be The photo seemed to tell a different story, and the gaming chair she was seated in looked too expensive for a kid. The vulgarities and snide tone seemed too adult.

Was she an immature teenager? Or a sly adult? It was a minute drive to the house in suburban Vancouver. After stopping for condoms, he arrived at 7 p. When he got inside, she disappeared down a hallway. Suddenly two police officers wearing bulletproof vests appeared from a back room, ordered him to lie on the floor and handcuffed him.

Since , nearly men in cities and towns across Washington State have been arrested in online-predator stings, most of them run by the State Patrol and code-named Operation Net Nanny. The men range in age from 17 to 77, though about a quarter are 25 or younger. As many as two dozen have been rounded up in a single sting and charged with attempted rape of , as Jace Hambrick was, even though no actual children were involved. The s and texts offering sex are written by undercover officers.

They are police officers, typically the youngest women on the force. For law enforcement, stings are an efficient way to make high-profile felony arrests and secure convictions. In June , John Garden, a State Patrol detective, ed a fellow trooper about ing him on a sting in Spokane. There is such shame associated with a sex crime , let alone sex crime , that a majority of the defendants plead guilty rather than face a jury.

At least five of the men have committed suicide, including a year-old caught in the same operation as Hambrick who then fled to California. As the police there moved to make the arrest, the man shot himself in the head. An analysis of court records in Washington State stings, as well as interviews with police and prosecutors, reveals that most of the men arrested have no felony record.

A strong predictor of predatory behavior is an obsession with child pornography, but at the time of their arrest, according to the State Patrol, 89 percent have none in their possession and 92 percent have no history of violent crime. They are nonetheless sentenced, on average, to more than six years in prison with no chance of parole, according to my analysis of the arrests I was able to confirm.

State police calculate the average is just over five years. Almost all were caught up in Operation Net Nanny, although the sting in which Hambrick was arrested was a t venture between the State Patrol and the Vancouver police. The men caught in these cases can wind up serving more time than men who are convicted of sexually assaulting and raping actual children. The legal standard for making an arrest in police stings is not high.

It can also be stopping to buy condoms or even just parking near the sting house. In fact, an entrapment defense is almost never successful in sting cases, according to Jessica Roth, a professor of criminal law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York. In entrapment cases, the accused often take the stand to give their side of the story, which rarely works in their favor.

Of the nearly Washington State sting arrests, I was able to find only one case in which an appeals court threw out the charges on grounds of entrapment. News conferences are well attended. News releases are reprinted verbatim, particularly by small-town papers. A KOMO News story said the men faced child rape charges, though the charge was actually attempted child rape. Statistics provided by the state police can also be misleading, creating the impression that hundreds of children were on the verge of being raped.

Compared to other criminal cases that can take a year or longer, may result in a few years in prison, costs hundreds of man-hours and still only result in a single arrest, this is a ificant return on investment. Considering the high level of potential offense, there is a meager investment that pays huge dividends. Yet most men caught in these raids pose a low risk to the public, according to Dr. They say that relatively few — maybe 15 percent of men they saw — pose a moderate to high risk. During his year career, Packard has worked for both prosecutors and defense lawyers.

His testimony was instrumental in preventing the release of Robert Lough, convicted of strangling and raping a woman, stabbing her a dozen times in the vagina and leaving her for dead. He has also done an evaluation of Joseph Nissensohn, who murdered three girls and is now on death row. Packard is, in short, well acquainted with the human capacity for evil, but that is not what he says he sees in most Net Nanny cases.

Currently, about men convicted in Washington State stings are still incarcerated. Some caught in stings are violent predators. Take Curtis Pouncy, 60, whose history of brutal sex crimes included raping a year-old girl he picked up from a bus station as well as a year-old at knife point. In August , after a long term of civil commitment, Pouncy was released under supervision and just six months later arrested in a Net Nanny sting for attempted rape of .

He is now serving life in prison. Without alternative sentencing — which might be a mix of community supervision by a parole officer, mandated therapy, a short jail term and, in some cases, waiving the registry requirement — there is no middle ground. Anyone convicted of a violent crime or sex offense, however, including the men doing time in Net Nanny cases, did not qualify. After Jace Hambrick was arrested, the police checked his criminal history. He had none. He gave them permission to examine his phone for child porn.

They found none. He consented to a search of his vehicle. He waived his Miranda rights and answered all their questions. They asked how often he masturbated and what he thought of when he did, what his fetishes were and what type of woman he preferred. They pressed him on why he wanted to have sex with a year-old. After the arrest he lost both of his jobs. During the 15 months he awaited trial, he rarely left the house. It was all but impossible to explain to people what had happened. In May , Hambrick had a bench trial and took the stand on his own behalf.

Among the witnesses were undercover police for the Vancouver Police Department. Detective Robert Givens, a middle-aged man, testified that he had written all the Gamer Gurl s and texts. Officer Heather Janisch, dressed in her police uniform, told the court that she had posed for the photo and invited Hambrick into the house.

At the time of the photo, she testified, she was about 24 — four years older than Hambrick. Hambrick and his mother were so confident that he would be acquitted that the two celebrated over coffee during a court recess. When the judge announced the verdict, they went numb: guilty on both counts, attempted rape of in the second degree and communication with a minor for immoral purposes.

And my Aunt Sally crying. I saw my mom crying. And I just broke. She rubbed his back, as if he were a little boy, their sobs filling the courtroom. He was transported to the Clark County jail, strip-searched and dressed in an orange jumpsuit. The judge later sentenced him to 18 months to life and a minimum of 10 years on the sex registry. Under Washington law, the parole board has the option of extending the incarceration of offenders like the Net Nanny defendants indefinitely. Within weeks, Kathleen Hambrick, now 55, rented her house and purchased an R.

She is fiercely protective of her son and rarely missed a visiting day. She has been married and divorced three times. Though not religious, she preached kindness. Many of her blog entries rant against prosecutors and the police. The only voice for change has come from a small band of middle- and upper-middle-class parents of young men arrested in Net Nanny stings.

Wright, an engineer, and his wife, Joylyn, a nurse, are one of at least six families of young soldiers stationed at t Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Wash. All faced discharge from the military and years in prison. Citing his clean record and military service, his lawyer asked the judge to grant him an alternative sentence that could have included suspending a prison term in favor of probation. In Washington, there are several criteria to qualify for an alternative sentence , and Wright easily met four: He had no conviction for a sex crime; no conviction for a violent crime; the offense did not result in substantial bodily harm in this case, no bodily harm ; he qualified for a sentence under 11 years.

The stumbling block? Unfortunately for Wright, there was no victim in his case, or in any of these cases. In Washington, a man could be caught fondling his niece and potentially qualify for an alternative sentence, but if he sends lewd texts to an undercover detective, he does not.

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